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October 14, 2003

Notes on the Creature Called Fox

A reader asks: What if we see a shift to a more riotous and partisan press? So I opened my notebook and flipped to Fox.

Tom Mangan, who has an elegant weblog for editors, wrote to me:

One for your “what’s really happening” file: we’re seeing a return to the partisan press of previous eras— Fox News being the most obvious example. Talk radio has become the de facto voice of the GOP, with a few exceptions. The right, of course, accuses us (meaning, the mainstream press and the TV networks) of being the de facto voice of the left, which they know to be untrue but it’s a useful lie that provides them an ideological rival and an excuse when their ideas can’t get traction. Somehow the non-partisan press needs to find a way through this new maze, and the last 50 years haven’t provided many clues on where to go, what to do, in this new era of partisan media.

The image that stuck in my mind was “the maze” that old-school journalists find before them, according to Tom. Except that I pictured it as an amusement park too. Over the main gates is the zooming, screaming Fox News Channel logo, and beyond that are scattered portals through which we are to enter the new maze for news.

Through one tunnel, marked Opinion! in fat letters, thousands of people stream, chattering in anticipation of what they will find. Another tunnel just says Talk, and it has equal traffic. Through another, called Fair and Balanced, an even bigger crowd shuffles, shouting “fair and balanced,” their happy taunt. We Report, You Decide takes the overflow. Liberal Media with a big thumb pointing downward is also a popular way in. The crowds there seem the edgiest.

Around a corner is Pretty Plastic Blondes Read the News with modest but steady traffic. And over there, the eye cannot miss the O’Reilly Factor entrance, with a billboard-sized head shot marking the spot where thousands a minute find their way. But an almost equal number hustle through No Spin Zone, O’Reilly’s other door. Turn around and the Sean Hannity entry way is almost as large— and there he is on the screen above, Frat Boy Conservative, smiling and cocky, young and fit, earphones on, mike ready, welcoming you to his house of news.

Tom Mangan, American editor, sees something at least a little like that stretching before him. He finds no entrance marked, “Good, Solid, Nonpartisan, Daily Journalism.” And yet signs around him say that from this maze Americans are to one day get their news. His question: What if the signs are right? What if we do see a shift to a more riotous and partisan press? (Forecast by James Fallows, among others.) For the remaining nonpartisan, newsgathering, shoe-leather journalism corps, is there a way into and out of this maze? It’s not clear. “And the last 50 years haven’t provided many clues,” writes Mangan, with a sense of alarm.

Liberal Complacency

Here is what I think, Tom. The most significant recent event in the political economy of national news has been the rise of Fox. Before Fox entered the game, there was an under-served market for news that departed from the consensus model. That model is still in place, with some variation, across PBS, CBS, the three NBC News properies, ABC, and CNN, as well as NPR in radio. The consensus in broadcast grew out of a similar one in newspapers and the newsweeklies. Mangan calls it nonpartisan reporting. I would call it neutral professionalism, with an asterisk* for everything about it that is not so neutral. Fox and others just call it the liberal media.

This “other” market was not at all a secret. It had been proven by the political power of talk radio, the success of the Regnery publishing house, and many other like developments at the intersections of politics and media since the 1980s— a time when “unseat the liberal media” became a populist cry, not just in media but in politics. (Eric Alterman’s book is the best guide to these developments.) Along comes Rupert Murdoch, risk taking billionaire and globalist, who had succeeded before in going from zero to sixty with Fox and the NFL. He and his team spot complacency in the other networks. The executives and journalists working in the consensus model thought alike: people need national news from their television sets and we are it— the benchmark for quality, the definition of how it’s done.

To which Fox said: oh yeah? We’ll see.

And we did. Comes September 11th, and the market opening Fox had glimpsed—the news in a more exciting, even dangerous key—grew into something like the national mood, although this is impossible to separate from the projection of mood by news providers and politicians speaking through them to us. Combined with a good range of on-air talent, decent quality production, a hustlling, underdog mindset, a lower budget and fewer bodies (which forced innovation), and at least one national star—Bill O’Reilly—to put a face on Fox, plus the brand’s natural strengths in hype (take the ratio at CNN of pretty blondes chosen to read the news and double it), plus the war in Iraq with all the viewers there to be won… and, wow, Fox, at a fraction of the size of CNN overtakes CNN and leaves MSNBC way back— in the ratings. That’s zero to sixty for Murdoch. Twice.

Like a Political Campaign

But unlike the NFL, where Fox as the newcomer had to show it could match what NBC, CBS and ABC had defined as “sports television,” (and hiring John Madden did that) in the domain of news Fox decided not to match but to redefine what network news could be. With the NFL, you can’t go out and find better players to televise. So Murdoch payed big for the rights. With news, what’s to stop you from getting your own players and putting on a different show? This is where Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox News Channel, a man with a background in political campaigns, had a notion. It was indistinguishable from his suspicion that the consensus model in the press was weakly defended.

As a political consultant Ailes had worked for Nixon, Reagan and the elder Bush. He thought there was a winnable audience there for news in a different political key. And he put his sense of the under-served market together with his knowledge of how winning coalitions are made, plus his familiarity with the mind of mainstream journalism (from having to manuever around the political press on behalf of his clients) to give birth to the Fox way. Ailes tried literally to unseat the liberal media by a.) not hiring it, and b.) preying on every weakness he could find. Like you would in a political campaign.

For the bored, more excitement. (This was his biggest gambit.) For angry conservatives, angry conservatives. For nonideological audiences fed up with liberal sanctimony, less liberal sanctimony. For those weary of political correctness, almost none. For news hounds, some— enough news to stick around for the fireworks. For men, blondes. For Republican women, Britt Hume. For zappers, a faster pace. For nodders, music a touch louder and graphics a touch grabbier.

For nativists, nativism. For the paranoid, a message: no, you’re not crazy. For the opinionated, lots of people who are opinionated. For Amercans, the flag. For the red states, a red state news source. For the kids who watch Jon Stewart, something at least continuous with the spectrum of smirk. For talk radio’s legions, a similar environment in video. For people interested in ideas, more people with license to spout ideas. For the Bush White House, a friendly forum. For the occasional guest from NPR, a chance to feel outnumbered. For liberals, news that is no more intolerable than CNN is for conservatives. (Yes, liberals watch Fox too.) And for the tabloid mind in all of us, the tabloid mind over news.

The Rhetorical Manuever

This isn’t even a full list of agenda items Ailes & Company worked out. And it leaves out the most confusing item of all, a rhetorical manuever he found to frustrate press think and its aging consenus model. In redefining the genre, national news, and changing around what scholars call existing professional norms, Ailes made a crucial decision. And that was to publicly describe his creation—indeed, order Fox to hype it—as nothing more than neutral professionalism, the very standard from which he had creatively departed. Officially, which means the public face presented to the world, Fox stood for news that is “fair and balanced,” dedicated to accuracy, openness and truth, presented without fear or favor, a disciplined no-spin zone, a space free of ideology, non-partisan, friendly to no side in the culture wars, and most of all…. finally free of bias:

Fox News Channel is “not a conservative network!” roars Fox News Channel chairman Ailes. “I absolutely, totally deny it… . The fact is that Rupert and I and, by the way, the vast majority of the American people, believe that most of the news tilts to the left,” he says. Fox’s mission is “to provide a little more balance to the news” and “to go cover some stories that the mainstream media won’t cover.” — Brill’s Content (Oct. 1999)

Appreciate this, Tom. First Ailes moved away from the consensus model, which made Fox seem exciting and different. Then he took its entire language of legitimacy with him— and that seemed exciting and different. Ailes and Murdoch just started speaking the other side’s consensus language, daring the press tribe to challenge their words. Ailes knew this would set off a war of definitions, and it did. He wanted that war to come. Why? I said it earlier. He had contempt for the complacency—liberal complacency—on the other side, those well fed professionals who believed… “we’re it, the benchmark for quality, the definition of how it’s done.” They had stopped listening, and the country was changing. The press to Roger Ailes is like an incumbent in office too long.

Ailes is an ironist, like all great media manipulators. The Fox News slogan, Fair and Balanced, has always been ironic because it is meant to say: “Ha! We’re the conservative alternative and yet more fair, more balanced than ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSBNC, Newsweek, the Washington Post and the holy New York Times, where—in a delusion that’s had its day—they claim to have no ideology at all! So we’ll claim to have no ideology at all, too. That will drive them nuts.”

And you know, Tom, I think it did.

The Paranoid Style in News

The creature that is Fox News, including the O’Reilly factor, is way more complicated, more interconnected with other things going down (like right wing populism generally, the rise of opinion journalism generally), and more interesting—even fantastical—than most in the chattering classes seem to think. I am amazed at how easily some writers and controversialists come to an opinion about what Fox is and is doing.

I don’t have an opinion, I have a maze of them. And don’t forget, Murdoch has Sky Channel. He’s global. Are you? Meanwhile, O’Reilly is moving week by week into Huey Long territory, perfecting the paranoid style in news commentary and intra-show controversy. About his brutal spat with Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air on NPR:

“The far left has a jihad against Fox News Channel, and I’m pretty much the standard-bearer,” O’Reilly said. “They don’t like the fact that I’m powerful and that I speak my mind.”

James Fallows had predicted it: “Sooner or later Murdoch’s outlets, especially Fox News, will be more straightforward about their political identity—and they are likely to bring the rest of the press with them.” Could be sooner, Jim. According to the Oct. 14th account by reporter Michael Klein of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “O’Reilly acknowledges that Fox News is right of center.” As far as I know, (the weblog world can correct me) that is a first. Rhetorically speaking, big news. I emailed Klein and he said he didn’t have the quote, but he definitely asked, and O’Reilly answered as written. Things get stranger if this is so.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 14, 2003 7:10 PM